"Fantasy Fest" is America's most liberating party, but beyond the skin, costumes and endless tides of good-times, it is a reminder of what frees America to consistently strive for me. There is excess and deviance but it is as wholesome and American as, well, grandma. The United States finds ways to push the bounds, and not always in a good way, but when we are liberated of prejudice and misconceptions America leads forward, from technology to entrepreneurship to diversity. As some clamor to "Make America Great Again," we also must be reminded that we need to be at times liberated from aspects of history that have held us back.
The Inclusive Party:
Key West has a reputation but to the connoisseur it is beyond the obvious. Fantasy Fest is an inclusive party celebrating the bonds in our diversity and relationship with nature. The 10+ days of festivities is kicked-off with a recognition of our extended links with the lands and cultures South of us, particularly the Caribbean at the Goombay Festival and parade.
Men wearing tutus and women paint their breasts in elaborate designs with some for the festivities putting aside bras and tops. (Most costumes do not include "nudity" but all is tolerated and almost all participate even as enthusiastic observers.) Pets join roosters in parading with the crowds (read "Fighting Chicken Nuggets of Key West".) The locals take over on Friday with a side-street parade, an exhibition where the only rule is no rules. Rain or sun, the mood as well as the party is uninterrupted. Even as some stole longer peeks and/or snatched close-up pics, there was no groping. No violence was recorded even as the cops to their credit maintained a low profile while both vigilant and tolerant with the spirit of the Festival. The Party ends with a big parade and bash put forward by Key West's civic and commerce leaders, from the Florida Keys College to the Southernmost Hotel (and at least a few dozen other Chamber of Commerce reliables.) Halloween arrives as an opportunity to recover.
Parody as Political Freedom of Expression:
The political echoes can be from scathing to simply playful. Two marchers this year carried signs for "no more political messages;" however where in some other societies the church, mosque or temple becomes the last refuge for political discourse in deeply repressed states, America's politics have as much place in our comedy and costumes as political stages and debates. Rather, I suspect some Trump backers felt out-manned, and out-womanned, with many costume themes poking attention at Trump's personality and temperament.
Walls Overcome, Gay is Not Identity but Mood
Perhaps among some beyond Key West, Fantasy Fest has been associated with the Island's LGBT community. However, as diverse as the residents of Key West so is the participation and celebration. Undoubtedly the gay community found refuge on the Island at a time when much of the rest of America was not as accepting. Key West was rejuvenated by the influx as artists, entrepreneurs and the simply pioneering became the seeds in yet another rebirth at "Mile Marker Zero".
(Local musician favorite "Bill Blue" plays at the Bourbon Street Pub, an established LGBT venue)
Tourists and more adventurous looking for a different home followed. From "Bahama Village" to the long established US Navy bases, Key West reflects today's America in diversity, with a few key distinctions. (Key West has probably an even larger percentage of visitors and residents born outside the US.) Difference is not basis for suspicion or walls and at no other time do we celebrate the heterogeneous than Fantasy Fest. Key West is homogeneous though in taking pride and part in our neighbor's liberation from the norm, including the presumable conformism of "age appropriate."
Burkini, Bikini or as Lady Godiva
Women shunning the top is, at least for me, symbolic of the liberation from norms and a past that cannot always be defined as consistent with either a free or a great America. Whether the hijab, burkini, bikini or nothing at all, that is a woman's choice. While some might see this as sexually arousing, I find it largely thought provocative. Do not blame the messenger if it offends. Most of the women who opt for highly stylized paint over cloth on their breasts would not meet Trump's definition of a "10", and he would deny them as physically desirable enough to grope. Along with the age-deficient there are many grandmas who take part, frequently with husband/"significant other" alongside, similarly or not themed. While the nudity or even overt sexuality might be over the top in some costumes, it was as much a family affair with children included.
American was not my identity at birth. As I adopted my American identity, America was also changing, overcoming real divisions and walls. Some sought to rationalize segregation and limiting equality and opportunity with appeals of "tradition" or designating themselves as true Americans, (even as they ignored the Native American's rights, the only authentic claim to original American.) Some debated the need for change, for racial, religious, sexual orientation and gender equality even as they sought to appropriate for their selective claims the US Constitution and/or Declaration of Independence. I am suspect of rhetoric without recognition of the need for deeds. I find it romantically consistent that women of my generation, (many or most are defined by age as grandmas), bare it all again. However, as a dusk may be about to fall AGAIN in America, and the government is AGAIN reasserted by some as having policing powers in our bedrooms or over women's bodies, it is liberating for me when she shuns clothing norms. I discover Lady Godiva within the crowds.
Still, Fantasy Fest is all largely in fun, something akin to a costume ball, with minimum of costume - that is consistent with with a Millennial tendency that wants to be entertained even as it is being educated and informed. However, those of us who lived through the age of when some sought to keep America chained to segregation or conformity, grandma has a story to tell about what was not so GREAT before.
After Midnight, still America or Pumpkin?
Exactly one week before the US votes in a new president, midnight may ring in a president-elect who seeks to take us back, belittle those who do not fit his superficial image of the ideal or American. As Obama was Cinderella confirming that any American could reach any height, (setting aside the birther-haters), Trump could turn out to be the pumpkin. At least though we still can celebrate, speak and wear liberation at Fantasy Fest and dream on a small island in the United States, of what we have been mostly and still aspire to be as Americans.
Footnote: Key West even has its own presidential/ & VP candidate & political party -- The Chillaxing Party -- with a touch of satire. Have enjoyed many musical gigs by group members of The Shanty Hounds. Join the fun and the "Party" & listen to two favorites: "Raise My Glass to the Upper 48" and "The Beach."
PHOTOS: Personal Collection